Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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Social survival demands of all of us that, from time to time, we learn to "pass" as something that we're not. When long-term prejudice comes into play, that enforced masquerade can become a life-long burden of disguise. Generations of light-skinned African-Americans, for whom "passing" might offer a high-risk exit from servitude, became the virtuosi of those skills. These days, however, "passing" has returned to US culture not as tragedy but farce; or rather, as the prime-time entertainment of the race-swap show Black. White, or else the voyeuristic thrills of Norah Vincent's book about living as a man.

Questions of race and gender press the most sensitive media buttons now. Yet there's another current example of voluntary imposture that deserves as much attention, and more applause. For many years a courageous commentator on US trends and troubles, Barbara Ehrenreich developed a sideline in eye-opening undercover reportage when she made herself over into a low-waged, shelf-stacking temp in Nickel and Dimed.

She has followed up that revelatory book about the underclass of affluence with its white-collar counterpart, Bait and Switch (Granta, £9.99). Doctoring her CV (as everyone in the "transition zone" of college-educated unemployment does), Ehrenreich morphed into redundant PR person, "Barbara Alexander". She spent a year among corporate has-beens and wannabes, all desperate to "stretch out their stay in the middle class".

The book that resulted is heart-breaking and hilarious, often in the same breath. Smart, keen, malleable, but deplorably middle-aged and well-qualified, Ehrenreich-in-disguise soon plunged into a twilight world of motivational voodoo, job-seekers' circuses and charlatan "coaches" who make the snake-oil salesmen they descend from look like pillars of probity. Bait and Switch makes a strong case for "passing" in the public good.

She finds herself among the middle-class legions of the lost - "the people who 'played by the rules', 'did everything right', and still ended up in ruin" when corporate America flung them out the door. Trained to obey, to co-operate and - above all - to identify with the conscience-free employers who will never reciprocate that loyalty, these white-collar waifs quickly become stranded souls in torment when redundancy strikes. How different, she notes, from the clear-sighted blue-collar casuals to whom - now as always - a job is just a job and a boss just a boss. So did the writer in mufti snap up a prime position? Not at all: she failed with the rest. "The corporate world... wants nothing to do with me, not even with the smiling, suited, endlessly compliant Alexander version".

The job-search jungle remains (slightly) different over here. At least we don't yet have the victim-blaming Evangelical gurus who treat any curiosity about "the social and economic forces shaping your life" as akin to a personality defect. Yet every episode of The Apprentice exposes the same inflammable mixture of deference and aggression, brittle narcissism and sheer panic, that Ehrenreich records among her ever-more rejected peers. And those sad types hanging on "Sir Alan's" every word are the pre-selected few.

Piquantly enough, Bait and Switch arrives courtesy of the admirable Granta Books, a firm that in recent weeks has done its bit for white-collar insecurity. Its new owner, Sigrid Rausing, reorganised the outfit in such a way as to make two esteemed executives suddenly redundant. Precious few publishers show any interest in passionate, incisive books of reportage about the way that we really live now. Granta is one of them, and should remain within this tiny band. We already have more than enough blank-faced, accountant-driven book factories passing themselves off as committed literary imprints.